Detroit Swindle on Life as a Duo, Live vs DJing, and the Importance of Aesthetics

Detroit Swindle on Life as a Duo, Live vs DJing, and the Importance of Aesthetics

Touring all summer, running a respected label, and putting out a new album, High Life, at the end of May, Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets are probably busier than you are.

But talking with the Dutch duo better known as Detroit Swindle, it doesn't seem like they'd want it any other way.

I got a chance to catch up with the fun-loving, multi-talented party starters and see where their heads are at in the midst of a big year. Here's what they had to say. 

You guys are a duo and I'm wondering what the pros and cons of that are?

Maarten: Well there's more pros than cons, luckily. I guess as a DJ duo it's super nice to go through all the heavier parts of this job together. All the traveling, waiting, few hours of sleep, etc. I don't think I would survive if I had to do this on my own. So it's always fun to have someone next to you who you can have a chat with or can pull you through when you're having a bad time.

Also in the club it's super convenient if you need to go to the bathroom, there's always someone who can put on the next song [laughs]. I think that's probably the biggest pro about a DJ duo.

Lars: Yeah, the whole musical part of it doesn't really add anything.

Something they don't tell aspiring musicians

L: It's all practical this marriage. There's no love.

M: Although I have to say it's nice to be challenged in the DJ booth or when we're doing a live show by the ideas of someone else. Something is happening with your music apart from what you have in your mind yourself and you have to respond to that by playing the right song to whatever Lars played or responding to a change over Lars starts in the live show.

It's cool to have that dynamic with someone rather than just doing everything by yourself and being a one man show. It's cool to share each other's energy. If you're standing in front of a crowd and you're both really feeling the vibe and you give that energy back to the crowd and you feel the energy of each other, it really gives something extra rather than having someone performing solo.

So we're happy to be in a duo and to be in a duo for a very long time.

What I find really interesting about electronic music is the divide between DJing and playing live. Do you prefer one over the other?

L: Not really it's just a totally different thing. With DJing you have a bit more freedom in a way because there's so much music you can take with you and you can play. There are so many genres and so much new music to discover so it's never dull.

With the live show, you're playing an instrument so you're playing your own music which you've heard a thousand times obviously because you made it. So in that respect it's less broad, but the fact that you're playing it live, every time it's different. Every live show you're playing a track differently. Every time the timing is different, every show you're making decisions that you didn't in other shows, so in that respect you get a lot of energy from it.

But we don't choose one over the other.

I've read before that you like to get to the venue early to assess how the crowd is reacting to things. How much does that affect what you're going to play?

M: Well, we always like to build on to the story the DJ or artist before us started and weave our own way into it. It's nice to see if a crowd reacts more to house or disco or if they're super into African music or techno. You can prepare in advance, but until the night starts you never really know what you'll get. So for us it's just as much preparation to be there in advance as it is getting acquainted with the club and adjusting to the sound and just kind of...

L: Feeling the vibe basically.

M: Feeling the whole vibe and getting into the vibe yourself as well. I couldn't arrive five minutes before a show and connect to the crowd straight away, that wouldn't really work for me. It's nice to just experience where you are. If you're playing in the US, playing in LA or, I don't know, the Far East, there's a different vibe to the club and to the people.

It's also part of the charm of the thing that we do which is performing your music for a certain location, so we want to cater to the audience to make it special for that audience. So a show in Tokyo will be totally different to a show in New York, for instance. And that's the fun part as well because it's cool to prepare for different types of audiences.

I find that really interesting in electronic music as well. In a rock show, the band kind of has all the power in that they'll play their set and the audience can take it or leave it. But there's such a give and take in an electronic club show.

L: I also think that's the interesting part of what we do. If you get it right, there's something really special. If you tap into your audience without losing sight of the music that you really want to play, you can build something really special there.

I've been to a lot of concerts in my life but I've maybe had two or three concerts where I've had the same feeling that I've had a lot of times during an electronic night. I don't know, it's a certain dance, it's like a waltz between the DJs playing the tracks they really want to play and the audience that expects a certain track or vibe from the DJ. And I think that freedom really works well for electronic music.

Do you guys have an ideal set length?

M: Our ideal set length is twenty minutes [laughs]. No, we like to play long sets, especially in venues that we know and that we've found the right vibe for. We like to play like four hour sets or something like that.

That's perfect since we play a lot of different genres, it feels like you're rushing it if you have to play everything within an hour. And you really get a chance to explore the depths of a certain style of music if you play longer sets. You have more opportunities for little side tracks.

L: Yeah, and this is going to sound weird, but also you have the time to play some non-party tracks. You have the chance to create lulls in your set and these lulls are the reason that if you go up in energy you're going to push your audience so much further into that vibe I was talking about earlier than just going away for an hour and a half and playing all the tunes you can put in there.

Shorter sets are going to be way more 'on' than if you have a lot of time, keeping the energy up the whole time. With more time you can play really weird and interesting tracks that you'd normally never play in a short set.

So then do you like the rise of the festival and their shorter sets?

M: [Laughs] Well in that respect not really. But I love playing festivals. I love the atmosphere of a festival, the whole idea of bringing electronic music to the daytime and outdoors is cool because it's a lot happier usually. You don't have the grim darkness or beer-smelling floors of old and dusty clubs.

Rather you have nature around you and if it's a cool festival there's nice decorations and a well set up festival plan. It gives for a totally different energy. Musically you just have to choose more. If you only play an hour or an hour and a half, you have to make a decision on the direction you want to take.

L: Yeah and it's a bit more hit and miss in a way. If you have an hour and a half and somewhere you make a musical decision and it's not really connecting, you don't have the time to figure it out because then you're done basically. So there's more risk involved and that's cool as well.

That makes for a totally different show than a club show, which is cool. Another thing about festivals is that they have so many people going at the same time.

You guys are big into collecting records, yes?

L: Yes, absolutely.

Have the changes to accessing music these days changed the way you approach music or collect or even make music?

M: Not so much streaming services, but YouTube is a big source for samples or as a source for obscure records. It's an amazing way to go digging without going to record shops. Or even just as preparing to go to a record shop or working your way through certain sets and certain collections, you'll find the most amazing things you'd never have heard of if it wasn't for YouTube.

L: And the cool thing is, we had this talk last week, most record collectors will put it up on YouTube, but they won't put it up anywhere else. So they just make a little clip of their vinyl playing or a vinyl rip and just to share it with the world.

It's funny that for some reason this medium really works like that for a lot of people. They're not afraid to put out very rare and very cool unknown records on YouTube for some reason. I don't know why, but it's really cool for us because if you know where to look you can find a lot of stuff that you couldn't anywhere else.

Yeah, there seems to be a negative connotation around streaming services

M: I see why people would dislike it. But then again the same argument would go for a platform like Discogs. I can see why people don't like Discogs because suddenly everything's available. But on the other hand, it's the same reason why you should like it.

If you've been looking for a piece of music for such a long time, an online marketplace with basically every record seller in the world on it would be the best place to go looking for that specific record you want. So that part is really cool. The only problem is it becomes a lot harder to find something that is still rare or not overpriced or not boosted by a set of some important DJ on Boiler Room.

I don't like the people who take advantage of platforms like that, suddenly upping the price like 500% because someone played it. But it's still an amazing spot to discover new music and find that specific record you've been looking for.

I want to talk about your label Heist Recordings. How hands on or even dictatorial are you with it?

L: Well [laughs] the thing is we are quite pragmatic in what we want to achieve with certain things and we're also very strict in the music that we like and dislike. So in that way, I don't think we're dictatorial, but we're very specific in what we want to release.

I think our artists know that and actually appreciate it because we also give quite in-depth feedback, so whenever we don't want to sign something, we give quite extensive feedback why. So in a way, I don't think we're dictatorial, but we're very specific in what we're releasing and not releasing.

M: Very Stalinistic

L: Yeah [laughs]. Also how it should look. The look of the label is very important to us. Also that we only press 180 gram vinyl, so everything has its details.

I actually wanted to ask about that. You work with visual artist Bas Koopmans for Heist, is he the only one you work with?

L: Yes. He basically does almost all of our styling, for Detroit Swindle and for the label.

How important do you think a cohesive aesthetic is to music these days?

M: Very. Well for us it's really important. For Detroit Swindle as a brand and Heist Recordings, they are our children. We really want to take good care of them and make the best out of them. A good aesthetic is really important for that, or at least we think it is.

We just want it to look nice and have a visual representation of our music that fits. It feels super nice to spend all this attention to detail on how it looks and feels, then pressing your record and getting it sent home and taking it out of its sleeve and seeing all the detail you spent so much time on. It makes it worthwhile.

L: Also I think it's not a given fact that you need it to release good music. Some of the best records we have are aesthetically very ugly.

M: Or white labels.

L: Yeah, so you don't really need it, but if it's good music and it looks good and you breathe your efforts into every detail, I think for us personally that really adds to the quality of the record.

M: And also you know you've done a good design if people decide to tattoo the logo on their arm.

L: Yeah [laughs] that's happened a couple times now.

The Roundup EP Heist does where you each remix a track by a label mate is a great idea. Tell me about that and whose idea was it?

L: I think it was Maarten's idea actually. He wanted to do something different and he thought of this idea which is basically a label incest party, if you will. I thought it was a great idea because the artists that we have, they'd never done anything like that and they thought it was cool, so it feels like a family product.

It also makes the bond between the artists better and it's just a fun thing to do every year. We still do it blindly. We get the artists together and blindfoldedly take a little piece of paper out of a bowl and then they can choose which track they want to remix.

Of course you have a new album coming out at the end of May. Tell me about the process and what you learned recording it. 

M: Well, it takes a long time to make an album we found out [laughs]. At least to do it properly, the way we wanted to do it. Last year in March, we recorded a large chunk of the music, but those were just the tracks in concept and we had a busy touring schedule so we took almost half a year to collect all the sketches and finish the tracks.

When we finally decided to put it out ourselves because we felt that Heist was ready to go into the next step of releasing an album, because this is going to be the first album on Heist, we had to take into account certain planning on the label that we wanted to attend to and didn't want to interfere with singles we were releasing from other artists.

Then you go ahead and look for remixers and that takes some time and then you want to put out a single.

L: Artwork!

M: We worked with a good friend of ours who's a painter and she made a painting for us which is the basis of the artwork. All these little things we wanted to do took a lot of time. But it was fine because we didn't feel like we had to rush it because we had just released an EP and some remixes. We hadn't been sitting still.

And yeah it's almost May so we're getting there. And the single just came out.

Yeah, I wanted to ask how the single, Flavourism, came together?

L: We started off with an idea of the track. We started with a totally different sample in it and then when we were jamming in the studio we laid down the chords and suddenly that fit really well. Then we dropped the original sample and changed the percussion completely.

The thing about the album is basically all the tracks on the album are made out of jam sessions. Just hours and hours of recording around an idea. So the concept of the tracks constantly changed, until we recorded the chords and then we recored the bass line.

Then we really felt it could use a cool vocal and then we sent it to Seven because we know him quite well and really love his voice and his style of singing as well. And he nailed it. He recorded it in one night in his studio in LA and he just nailed it completely. And that was it, it was done.

When songs come out of jams, how do you reach a point where you think the songs are complete?

M: You don't.

L: [laughs] Yeah, you don't. You have to make decisions. Somewhere you just decide that this is the concept and this is the hook. But you can feel it as well. When we lay down the bass lines and the bass is just flowing away under the chords we can feel that this was it, we don't need to change anything now.

Maarten said it better. We were talking about Flavourism and he said, "I think we were jamming to the same loop for like two hours." That's it. If you can do that on a track you made yourself and you don't get bored with it, that's a really good sign.

So you have residency at London's Phonox coming up. What can we expect from that?

M: We have four Fridays in May and each one kind of has a different angle. We play one all nighter. One bigger oriented night with John Gomez and Dan Shake. We play a night with a very talented local DJ from London named DJ Elliot. And we play a night with Aaron L from Stamp The Wax and a TBA special guest.

One night is kind of house-y, one is selector focussed, another is a bit more worldwide. For us it's cool because we've played Phonox two or three times and every time has been really fun. A good crowd and the size of the club really fits the type of music we want to bring. It's not too big, not too small, and there's always a really nice energy, so we're really looking forward to hosting those Fridays there.

One last things, are you guys K98?

L: [laughs] We cannot comment on that.

M: I am not K98.

L: Maarten is definitely not K98.

Do you think K98 still exist?

L: I mean you should probably ask him or her.

M: Maybe Google it.

Check out the festivals Detroit Swindle are playing this summer here

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